As a feminist and someone who is interested in gender theory, I like to observe how gender plays out in our society. A while ago, I found an advertisement on the internet for – yes – manly detergent. The ad was an overdose of robust, dark colours, earthy patterns and vintage pictures of men in suits drinking whiskey. Amused, I read it through: “We grew tired of using brightly coloured detergent bottles with classically feminine scents like ‘spring breeze’ and ‘meadows and rain,’” it said. While I was entertained by their motivation, I turned thoughtful when I read the comments under the post of the advertisement: “Protect your fragile masculinity with manly laundry detergent!” one comment stated.
When you look up the term “fragile masculinity,” dozens of sites pop up that ridicule products with taglines such as “engineered for men” and “man-sized.” These products vary from Q-tips, soap and tea to poetry books and interior design. Even offline, you can observe a trend of exclusively male spaces, such as the popular barbershops found around town where women are not allowed. All these things cause me to wonder: is masculinity fragile?
Though gender inequality is a serious issue in our society – such as the wage gap, the glass ceiling, and women having to endure sexual harassment and being faulted for it – gender issues also play out in other ways. Take the Bechdel test for example, which conveys rules for the representation of women in the media, or boys being told that “they fight like a girl.” While less serious than sexual harassment, it still is food for thought.
Even though I question the necessity of gendering products such as detergent and Q-tips, I do feel it is part of a deeper problem in our society that has to do with identity. Our civilisation moves towards individuality and sexual liberation for both men and women, yet most of us still operate using our standards and values which are quite out-dated, but deeply integrated in our culture. For people growing up in these times, figuring out who you are and what your gender identity is might be quite confusing, if not confronting. What does “gender identity” mean nowadays anyway? What exactly is femininity, and what is masculinity?
While researching this topic, I found a study published in Social Psychology which investigated masculinity. The researchers found that men who believe their manliness had been questioned feel the need to overcompensate for it: one of the factors was rejecting what is seen as feminine. The invention of “male” products and activities might be because men feel questioned, even threatened, in their masculinity in other ways. The rejection of “feminine” goods explains why some products are necessarily gendered, in order to appeal to men. Still, it’s strange that only male products are ridiculed: when there’s a similar product on the market that targets women, the online commenters are surprisingly silent. For instance, looking up “fragile femininity” gives very different results.
A few weeks later, I looked up the site of the manly detergent advertisement I had found, and my eye caught a title saying “Promoting Gender Equality”: “The detergent industry . . . is clearly genderized and out-dated,” it read. “Almost every product is . . . tailored towards women, stemming from an era we, as a society, have outgrown. FREY offers men a laundry product of their own. In doing so we hope to help break down stereotypes about who should do which household chores.” While I am still not a hundred per cent sure whether gendering products will help us move on towards a more gender equal society, I do feel that the creators of FREY have a point in that men should be equally included in household chores and might feel ill-represented by the products that are currently on the market. Much like women, or minority groups for example, might feel ill-represented in other aspects.
Gendering products might cause more segregation between men and women (manly Q-tips, really?), as well as reach a connection, such as incorporating both genders for products that were formerly aimed towards either women or men. It is difficult to reach a final conclusion on this chapter of gender equality, since the story is still a long way from finished. We can only wait and see how this will play out in our society.